On Sunday Microsoft announced beta availability of MSN Virtual Earth, a new Web service with extensive search and mapping capabilities that give people a way to utilize location-based information online.

The service enables users to search, discover, explore, plan and share information and activities relevant to specific U.S. locations by combining aerial imagery, detailed maps and precise local search capabilities. Users can access the beta version of the service at http://virtualearth.msn.com.

"When you're in an unfamiliar city and need to find a nearby Chinese restaurant or ATM within walking distance of your hotel, a traditional Internet search experience won't give you the visual location-specific information you need," said Stephen Lawler, general manager of the MapPoint business unit and MSN Virtual Earth at Microsoft. "MSN Virtual Earth provides a deeply immersive search experience that lets people see what it's like to be in a location and easily explore what they can do there."

Virtual Earth Features

MSN Virtual Earth features include the following:

  • Aerial photo with labels. This navigation feature combines real-world imaging with the usefulness of a traditional road map by letting people see aerial photos with an overlay of road networks and point-of-interest information.

  • Locate Me. With this feature consumers can quickly find their present location, then explore and discover the area around them. The Locate Me link activates Microsoft Location Finder, which uses Wi-Fi access points or Internet Protocol address geocoding to determine a person's location.

  • Scratch Pad. As people conduct searches around a location, they can choose to save search results including name, address and description as a list or itinerary to the Scratch Pad. This provides users with a simple way to compile search results that can be e-mailed, copied into a document or even added to a weblog on MSN Spaces.

  • Permalink. Permalink is for consumers who regularly conduct the same searches or who want to share specific searches with others. By clicking the Permalink link, a URL is created that then can be used to return to MSN Virtual Earth later and re-create map view and searches. The Permalink link can be bookmarked, e-mailed to a friend or copied into a clipboard.

  • Yellow page directories. MSN Virtual Earth incorporates licensed yellow page directories to enable users to find high-quality yellow page listings. These directories have been incorporated into the MSN Search index so users can query the information in broad, flexible ways.

  • Zoom, panning and compass controls. Users have multiple options for navigating their view of aerial photos or standard maps in MSN Virtual Earth; they can use the mouse's scroll wheel, zoom, or Game Panning via the Compass Control.

  • Community link. A Community link in the navigation bar calls up a Web site that encourages people's feedback and enables their participation in the ongoing development of MSN Virtual Earth.

  • Developer resource center. Accessible from the Community site as well as directly from http://www.viavirtualearth.com, the developer resource center is a third-party Web site from which developers can download the MSN Virtual Earth map control and find other information to help them start creating Web sites that incorporate the MSN Virtual Earth service.
MSN Virtual Earth is integrated with the local features of MSN Search, MapPoint technologies and aerial imagery from TerraServer-USA to provide users with expansive search results. In the next beta release of MSN Virtual Earth scheduled for later this year, MSN plans to incorporate oblique, or bird's-eye, imagery licensed from Pictometry International Corp. that depicts cities, landmarks and points of interest at a 45-degree-angle view.